25 October, 2014

Using the Web to Study the Minds of Dogs

English: Matheson Reading Room at Emory Univer...
English: Matheson Reading Room at Emory University in Atlanta, GA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Emory university
Emory university (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
By Carl Zimmer

In 1995, Brian Hare began to wonder what his dog Oreo was thinking.

At that time, he was studying animal psychology with Michael Tomasello at Emory University in Atlanta.

Humans, it was known at that time, are exquisitely sensitive to signals from other humans. We use that information to solve problems that we might struggle to figure out on our own.

Dr. Tomasello discovered that chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, typically fail to notice much of this social information. Pointing to the location of a hidden banana will usually not help a chimp find the banana, for example.

But Mr. Hare had his doubts. “I think my dog can do that,” he declared.

To persuade his mentor, he videotaped Oreo chasing after tennis balls. And indeed, when he pointed left or right, off the dog would run, in the indicated direction, to find a ball.

He then followed up with a full-blown experiment, using food hidden under cups in his garage; Oreo consistently picked out the right cup after Mr. Hare pointed to it, and other dogs (including some that had never seen Mr. Hare) did well, too. Dogs could indeed pass the pointing test, while wolves, their wild relatives, could not.

Dr. Hare, now an associate professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, has continued to probe the canine mind, but his research has been constrained by the number of dogs he can study.

Now he hopes to expand his research geometrically – with the help of dog owners around the world. He is the chief scientific officer or a new company called Dognition, which produces a Web site where people can test their dog’s cognition, learn about their pets and, Dr. Hare hopes, supply him and his colleagues with scientific data on tens of thousands of dogs.

“Because it’s big data, we can ask questions that nobody could have a chance to look at,” he said.

From his previous research, Dr. Hare has argued that dogs evolved their extraordinary social intelligence once their ancestors began lingering around early human settlements. As he and his wife, Vanessa Woods, explain in their book, “The Genius of Dogs,” natural selection favored the dogs that did a better job of figuring out the intentions of humans.

But while this evolution gave dogs one cognitive gift, it didn’t make them more intelligent in general. “If you compare them to wolves as individuals, they look like idiots,” Dr. Hare said. “But if you then show them having a human solve the problem, they’re geniuses.

Dr. Hare says his main goal is to build a database that will shed light on longstanding questions about behavior, breeding and genetics – for example, whether the cognitive styles of various breeds can be linked to their genes.

Dr. Hare hopes that scientists can use Dognition to deliver their insights to dog trainers.

One hypothesis has already emerged from Dognition’s users, Dr. Hare said. A surprising link turned up between empathy in dogs and deception. The dogs that are most bonded to their owners turn out to be most likely to observe their owners in order to steal food.

from TODAY, Saturday, May 4, 2013